Boston Globe: ‘Burn All Night’ considers the end of the party

Publication date: 
August 17, 2017
Christopher Wallenberg

Actor Andy Mientus has gone from playing a fledging young musical theater librettist on television — in NBC’s much loved-and-loathed, Broadway-set series “Smash” — to actually assuming the mantle of novice book writer and lyricist in real life.

On a writing retreat in Woodstock, N.Y., a couple of years ago, that life-imitating-art transition was crystallized for Mientus when director Jenny Koons pulled a stack of notecards to help them structure the new musical, “Burn All Night,” that they were creating with members of the Brooklyn-based synth-pop band Teen Commandments. Mientus’s mind immediately flashed back to a scene he filmed in “Smash” in which his character Kyle Bishop, a Jonathan Larson-like librettist writing a new rock musical, was being mentored by Debra Messing’s Julia to rearrange his show’s book using notecards with the names of the songs and scenes on them.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, people actually do this!’ I thought it was just made up for television. But it’s actually really useful to organize everything that way,” says Mientus, who’s starred on Broadway in “Les Miserables” and the 2015 Deaf West Theatre revival of “Spring Awakening.”

He acknowledges “it’s a full-circle moment” to now be standing on the cusp of premiering “Burn All Night,” his first musical as a writer, at the American Repertory Theater’s Oberon club space in Cambridge beginning Friday.

Indeed, life is imitating art in more ways than one with “Burn All Night.” Mientus’s initial inspiration for the show — about a group of hard-partying Manhattan millennials facing the prospect of adulthood and the possible end of the world while delving deep into the night life — was drawn from his own experiences after first moving to New York. He’d just been cast in the original “Spring Awakening” tour and had dropped out of the musical-theater program at the University of Michigan. Then his father passed away.

“I moved to the city to start rehearsals. And I didn’t really give myself the time or the space to process that grief and all of that change. Thus I hit night life pretty hard when I got there.”

Meanwhile, warnings about climate change had become increasingly dire, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued to rage, and voters in California had recently approved anti-gay legislation.

“I had all this anxiety about the world around me,” he says. “But I was going out to all these night life spaces with friends and forgetting about all of it. It was an escape for everybody. So I thought there was something to explore in that idea.”

The musical — with a score composed by Van Hughes, Nick LaGrasta, and Brett Moses of Teen Commandments — centers on four early 20-somethings searching for human connection and larger meaning in world that seems to be spinning out of control. Bobby (Lincoln Clauss), who’s just moved to the city, reconnects with his childhood friend Holly (Krystina Alabado), and the two immediately bond over their shared past. An aspiring artist who works a corporate job, Holly is dating Zak (Ken Clark), a musician known for one big hit song. But she also finds herself drawn to upbeat, life-of-the-party Will (Perry Sherman), an old flame from high school. All of this unfolds against the backdrop of increasingly ominous news events happening around the globe.

“When people ask, ‘Oh, so which character are you?,’ I say that I’m all of them, really. It’s like the four little angels and demons inside of myself now getting out on stage for everyone to see,” Mientus says with a laugh. “It’s also inspired by the themes and ideas and anxieties that I was seeing in all my friends at the time — and that I think have only grown.”

He first met Hughes, who had starred in “Spring Awakening” and “American Idiot” on Broadway, at Mientus’s 22nd birthday party in 2008 and asked if he’d be interested in writing music for his nascent project.

“For the first probably five or six years, it was really more like primordial sketching,” Mientus says. “It was just something that we were doing for the love of it, the love of writing together, and the belief in what we were trying to say.”

“Burn All Night” hit a faster track when a commercial producer, Hunter Arnold, took an interest in the project, and then after the team brought director Koons aboard two years ago. “As insecure as I can be about being a first-time playwright, it buoys me to know that every step of the way it’s been someone else getting excited about it and wanting to be a part of it,” Mientus says.

The music in the show mirrors the throwback synth-pop sounds of Teen Commandments, with sonic influences ranging from ’80s New Wave and post-punk heroes New Order, Joy Division, Depeche Mode, and Talking Heads to the ecstatic, electro-pop grooves of MGMT, Chairlift, LCD Soundsystem, and The Rapture.

In writing the score, Hughes says that sometimes the better choice was to create a song with a sonic palette that contrasted with the action happening in the story. “For instance, there’s a sequence in the show that should feel dark and edgy and a little scary,” Hughes says. “But what we discovered was that if the music sounded scary, that scene or moment actually wasn’t as scary. Or when the music is sexy, but you know something wrong is going on, it’s actually way more disturbing.”

Like most shows at Oberon, “Burn All Night” will use its nightclub setting to create an immersive vibe that envelops the audience, with Koons staging the action all around the room, from movable platforms to a catwalk to the top of the bar. “Early on, [scenic designer] Sara Brown, who’s worked on a bunch of shows in here, told me, ‘Don’t fight the space. Succumb to it and embrace it,’ ” Koons says. “So I’ve been thinking so much about how to calibrate the growth and the journey of the room during the show. Where do we take over the whole space? Where do we push into the crowd? And how do we keep a dramatic arc so that it doesn’t peak too soon?”

In these dark times, when dire warnings about climate change, terrorism, and war seem to come at us nonstop, thinking about your personal ambitions and planning for the future “can feel a bit like polishing the brass on the Titanic,” says Mientus.

“If I’m inheriting this ticking time bomb of a planet, what should I do about it, and what is the best way to spend the time that you have? What is the best way to find meaning? Should I just seek out pleasure whenever and wherever possible? Or should I try to create something of myself? Or should I spend as much time as I can with family and friends?

“I think that is a real existential question for a lot of young people.”


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